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The Cultural Contradiction of Liberalism

This year’s first big summer movie, “Iron Man 2,” reprises the adventures of Tony Stark, the iron suit-wearing industrialist who fights off evil-doers. The media have had fun outing the fictional billionaire as a rarity in Hollywood movies – a capitalist hero. Actually, Stark, played by Robert Downey Jr., is very much in the mold of the classic Hollywood protagonist – the bold individualist who bucks the system.

Hollywood, which makes movies and TV shows generally reflecting liberal values, loves larger-than-life rule breakers like Tony Stark. Nearly every blockbuster hero in recent memory – from Rambo and Dirty Harry to Batman and TV’s Jack Bauer– have been system-flouting nonconformists.

As the latest in this breed, Tony Stark exemplifies a central contradiction of liberalism: Mavericks like him are heroes to Big Government liberals – but only on the screen.

Like Tony Stark, Apple’s co-founder and CEO Steve Jobs is a technology genius who perseveres despite a life-threatening affliction. Jobs doesn’t fight bad guys while wearing an iron suit. But he has pioneered breakthrough products that have improved the lives of Americans and generated thousands, if not millions, of jobs.

In his black turtleneck and faded jeans, Jobs has been an icon of the technology counterculture – the industry’s David struggling against Goliath Microsoft. Now that he’s gotten within striking distance of winning, he has become a target for the usual left-wing accusations of greed. During a commencement speech at Hampton University in Virginia, President Obama briefly bashed Jobs’ latest creation, the iPad, as being part of a technology culture promoting “diversion” and “distraction,” not to mention dangerous ideas (translate: opposition).

Meanwhile, The Obama Justice Department is reportedly considering an anti-trust investigation of Apple. Though dismissed as spurious within the technology community, such a probe, were it to occur, could lead to a potentially crippling antitrust action against one of the most innovative companies in American history. Steve Jobs would share the fate of another technology superhero, Microsoft founder Bill Gates, who eventually left his job and whose company was forced to pay billions of dollars in anti-trust penalties, the price of being too successful.

Take another familiar Hollywood plotline: underdogs – or as one website dubs them, a “Rag Tag Bunch of Misfits” – who band together in what looks like a hopeless quest, going on to win legitimacy and an unlikely victory against an imposing adversary. The blockbuster “Avatar,” about the alien Navi, low-tech underdogs who rise to the occasion and eventually overpower their far more powerful human oppressors, has elements of this formula.

However, when real Rag Tag underdogs, the Tea Party activists, showed up in Washington with flags and handwritten signs to make their case for freedom and limited government, they were derided as crazed fanatics beyond the pale of American culture. Apparently none of these critics saw “Avatar” or the original movie in this genre, “The Dirty Dozen.” Nor do they appear to recall their history lessons about the rag-tag revolutionaries who staged the original Boston Tea Party.

And what about that now-famous outsider, Sarah Palin? When the Alaska governor, a soccer Mom and former small town Mayor, first stepped forward as a vice presidential candidate, I was waiting for comparisons to Jimmy Stewart’s idealistic scoutmaster, suddenly thrust into national politics in “Mr. Smith Goes To Washington.” One would have thought that her resemblance to this small town hero might have captured the media’s imagination and earned Ms. Palin, at least initially, a short honeymoon with some playful press coverage. Instead, almost from the beginning, she was met with suspicion befitting a mole from Al Qaeda.

Big government advocates ostensibly champion the rights of underdogs and believe in individualism, creativity and free expression. This perception has helped drive the popularity of Democrats, the party they favor, among creative people in the media and entertainment industries, as well as in the arts and on college campuses. Meanwhile, these same individuals routinely support candidates, policies and bureaucracies – that crush the individualism and free expression they purport to value.

Liberals consistently vote against individual choice in education (i.e. vouchers); health care (mandatory insurance with rules tying the hands of physicians); energy production (limited exploration); and even food. They support restrictions on commercial and political speech; as well as critical financial services. And they favor anti-trust regulations to rein in our most innovative and successful entrepreneurs. They are either unwilling or unable to grasp how these restraints limit our free choice as individuals and our creativity as a society.

Liberals usually counter that conservatives seek to impose their own social and religious values on the rest of us. This argument, however, is an overstatement. Most honest observers would agree that America is a far more open and diverse place than it was decades ago. Meanwhile, constraints on economic freedom are today reaching alarming new levels, thanks to new, intrusive government bureaucracies in healthcare and other sectors that promise to have wide-ranging impact on the lives of Americans.

Hollywood makes movies glorifying rule breakers like Ferris Bueller, the famed free spirit who played hooky from his suburban Chicago high school. In reality, big government types are really rooting for his lead-footed pursuer, Ed Rooney, who perpetually tries – and fails – to bust Ferris for truancy. Liberals ridicule colorless bureaucrats like Rooney in movies – yet they want the IRS to come after you for not buying health insurance. Indeed, one can readily imagine a twenty-something Ferris Bueller kissing off Obamacare.

Democrats insist they’re the party of empowerment. They may admire it in movies. But in real life they’re the party of rules.

Elizabeth Ames is a communications executive and co-author with Steve Forbes of "How Capitalism Will Save Us: Why Free People and Free Markets Are The Best Answer In Today’s Economy (Crown Business)."

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Elizabeth Ames is a communications executive and co-author with Steve Forbes of “Freedom Manifesto: Why Free Markets Are Moral and Big Government Isn’t.” (Crown Business).

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